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Everyone I’ve met has at least one realistic dream they’d like to see come true.
They’d like to have a good body. Or be nicer. Or learn a hobby.
But when I ask them what they’re doing to make it come true, almost always, stripping away the wishy-washy, what I hear is “nothing”.
Not surprising. Our brains were wired to be short-sighted.
Procrastination isn’t a mark of the lazy. It’s the default, a mark of normality.
Although college kids are the most likely to wait until the last minute, the problem is universal. According to online goal setting community 43things.com , stop procrastination is the third most popular goal (no surprise, lose weight is #1).
Why is long-term action so hard?
The average American adult would rather accept $50 today than $100 two years from now.1 That’s an annual return of 42%.
Absurd. The average annual return of the stock market over the past 50 years has been around 6%.2
In other words, our first impulse is to ignore an investment opportunity seven times better than that provided by reality.
That’s why we borrow at high-interest rates rather than save and vegetate rather than socialize. As things stand, our dreams are good for the additional jolt of inspiration and excitement, but not much else.
From an evolutionary perspective, most of the human brain developed under an environment of scarcity and unpredictability. Day to day survival was concern number 1, 2, and 3.
First, life was demanding enough that focusing on the far future at the expense of the present could get you killed. For example, imagine someone spending time experimenting with new weapons when what they should have been doing is finding food. New weapons would be useful, but it might take years until something effective was discovered. In the mean time, they would have starved to death.
Second, life was uncertain. A caveman could spend years studying how best to hunt deer, only to have a plague kill off the local game and force him to find alternative sources of food. A high-school student who learns how to program well will be able to get a job, now and 15 years later (although perhaps not at the salary he’d want).
Third, many actions which are beneficial in the long-term but costly in the short-term were transcribed into subconscious impulses. Making friends, for example, was (and still is) useful, but takes up time that could have been used to do other things. To encourage friend making behavior, productive social interaction was made to be pleasurable. The part of the brain responsible for long-term action was unneeded.
For those reasons, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for long-term action, is small and weak. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes it like this:
Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will…. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
The best course of action isn’t to fight against human nature – that’s a tough battle to win. More effective is a gentle nudge.
That’s why the first step in effective long-term goal accomplishment is creating and focusing on a short-term subgoal.
One Week or One Month, Not One Year
Intellectually, I’m capable of planning out and visualizing years into the future. But on an emotional level, all I’m good for is two weeks. And I rank in the 99.9 percentile for future-goal oriented.
I’m capable of getting about as much done in 2 months as I am in 2 weeks because I don’t start working until I’m near the end of my deadline. Projects and reports that I should have spaced out over eight weeks I do in the last few days.
Anything past one or two weeks I have trouble feeling motivated for.
I’m sure its different for you, but three days or three months, work with rather than against your nature.
What’s your sweet spot?
If your long-term dream is to have a sexy body, figure out a sub-goal which takes you closer to the dream, but which is close enough to the present to keep you excited. If your sweet spot is one week, then create a sub-goal of losing half a pound over the next seven days. If your sweet spot is two months, then create a sub-goal of losing 5 pounds over the next eight weeks. You get the idea.
But you might be thinking, “this isn’t enough!”
With a sub-goal, although the reward is closer to the present, it’s also smaller. Writing half a book is good for feeling proud, but only a whole book can make any money.
Don’t worry, go through the whole series and that’s a problem you’ll be able to deal with.
For now, think about your sweet spot. If all you’re good for is one day, that’s okay!
How many days in advance of a deadline do you start working hard? What can you do to make progress on your goal during those next few days?
Latham 1974 – 1 day goal setting workshop given to 20 tree loggers increased productivity over the following 3 months, valued at a quarter-million dollars.
Cambell 1976 – Chess players given a hard goal were more likely to successfully complete higher-level chess problems.
Ivancevish 1976 – Sales personal given training in goal setting sold more.
Becker 1978 – Two groups of people given goals on conserving energy. Those given the easy goal did no different, while those given the hard goal cut household energy expenditure by 14% over the duration of the study.
Latham 1978 – Typists given hard goals increased their performance.
Latham 1982 – 39 truck drivers were assigned goals. Over the following four months, their performance increased, being valued at $2.7 million dollars.
Reber 1990 – Factory workers walked through a goal setting workshop and provided feedback increased safety compliance from around 50% to almost 100%.
Rothman 2005 – Smokers helped in setting quit goals were almost twice as likely to have abstained after a quit attempt. This held true even after 18 months.
Seo 2009 – Students walked through the goal setting process were less likely to procrastinate.
In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.
The person with a fixed goal, a clear picture of his desire, or an ideal always before him, causes it, through repetition, to be buried deeply in his subconscious mind and is thus enabled, thanks to its generative and sustaining power, to realize his goal.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility, and commitment.
I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.
1. Derivation of” rational” economic behavior from hyperbolic discount curves, 1991.
3. The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, 2010.